Back To The Future

Here’s some more intriguing insight from the October, 1918 edition of The Etude, there’s an article written by Constantine von Sternberg (a student of Franz Liszt) entitled The Music Interest of the American Man of To-Morrow.  89 years ago, Constantine had this to say about the burgeoning American orchestra scene (edited for length) in the introduction paragraphs of the article,

Judged by its outward showings, our progress in musical culture is astonishing. When one contemplates the programs and observes the audiences of our present symphony concerts and reflects that we have traversed the entire distance from the lower plane to the present high, artistic altitude in less than half a century, it seems marvelous.  In many of our larger cities, where, twenty years ago, no one would have dreamed of such a thing, we have now large, legitimate, well-equipped symphony orchestras under thoroughly competent conductors, and the fast growing number of such orchestras indicates that the movement in this direction is in reality only beginning.

Of course, all these fine orchestras are, as yet, not self-sustaining it would scarcely be fair to expect it otherwise at this comparatively early stage.  Their annual deficits are covered through the liberality of some public-spirited persons who, however, represent but a small fraction of the number of people of means who support them.  More honor to them!  They prove in true American fashion their faith in the cause of good music and feel satisfied that sooner or later their fine generosity will become unnecessary.  This hope will be very tardy of fulfillment unless we begin at once with the uprooting and destroying of a prejudice the disturbing and retarding force of which is not generally recognized that good music instruction is well enough for girls but not for boys.

The article goes on to espouse the benefits of music education, whether it is actively learning an instrument or merely music appreciation. That just goes to show how long the “music education during childhood years” approach has been a prominent issue.

However, the really interesting parts are found in the previous sentences.  The author goes on to regale readers with how quickly a quality orchestral music scene was establishing itself throughout America.

I was especially struck by the comment that, 20 years prior to their time, it was unthinkable that artistically capable orchestras could exist in so many American cities and that they only expected the trend to continue growing.

However, it’s the material about creating a self-sustaining organization at the beginning of the second paragraph which really makes you scratch your head and wonder “Just how did we get from there to here?”

It would have been fascinating to read more about what direction Constantine thought the funding cycle would evolve.  Could it have been endowments, earned income via tremendous demand from a well educated public, increased philanthropic support, or government subsidies?

Although it’s never really stated, in an obvious fashion, it seems apparent that the author would have preferred the second option and, given a perfect world, I would have to agree.

I enjoyed the stalwart language such as “uprooting and destroying of a prejudice” as much as the audience which the author seemed to be directing their words; to the common everyday person. The remainder of the article goes on to read like a grass roots campaign program, they lay out in no uncertain terms the problem, what should be done to fix it, and how everyone should contribute to a solution.

The article is full of hope, honesty, progress, and accountability.  Perhaps one of the best places to look for solutions to the problem of American Orchestral Malaise is in the past, when the would-be giant that is the American classical music scene was still in knickers.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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